A brief primer on LGBTQ allyship for lawyers
“Hey, I want you to know that I’ve got your back.” How many of us have ever said something like that to a colleague or friend? More pointedly, how many of us have ever truly meant those words? And what does “having another person’s back” actually look like?
The subject here is “allyship”—the action part of being an ally. It usually means taking a risk on behalf of someone else, and often it involves devoting time and expending capital—political, monetary, emotional—to advocate for another human who lacks power.
For the legal profession, which can be risk adverse and sometimes very shortsighted—particularly when it comes to diverse colleagues and their groups (e.g., the people who most often need allyship)—allyship can be a challenging topic.
Still, this doesn’t mean that lawyers are incapable of standing up for colleagues; it’s just that we need to be darn intentional about it.
Ally vs. allyship
Most people readily understand what constitutes an “ally”: It’s a status signifying that you support another human or group of humans as they work to get free of institutional or societal “isms” and “phobias”—racism, genderism, sexism, transphobia and able-bodyism.
“Allyship,” on the other hand, is the action part of being an ally.
Please indulge me as I share some personal examples of allyship.
Twelve years ago, I transitioned from male to female while practicing civil trial law in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was the first Iowa lawyer to ever transition genders, and I reluctantly announced my transition via a three-page letter emailed to clients, colleagues and judges. That email went out at 8:30 a.m. on the second Monday in May of 2009 when my administrative assistant hit “Send.”
I immediately held my breath and waited. It didn’t take long before the emails and phone calls, and then later, the letters, began to arrive. Incredibly, the feedback was 100% supportive, with people congratulating me and affirming my right to live authentically.
Two moments stood out in particular.
The first was a phone call from a man and woman, partners at one of the largest law firms in town. The call started with, “Congratulations, ‘Ellen!’ We ‘re so happy for you. What can we do to help?”
I was certain this was the first time either caller had ever talked to a real live transgender person. The call was made even more remarkable because they were with the most conservative firm in town—meaning they took a political risk in calling me.
The second standout moment occurred when I met with two clients; a couple in their early 60s who were being sued for $100,000 for alleged fraud over the sale of a high-end house—the claim was that they had failed to disclose that windowsills in the house were rotted. (My clients were “air conditioner people” who never opened the windows; even the buyers’ home inspector missed the windowsill issue.)
The trial was set to occur in two months. I advised the clients that if they wanted a new lawyer, I could certainly obtain a continuance for that. Both indicated that they still wanted me as their attorney.
The next question was whether they desired for me to try the case as a man—after all, I was only a few months into growing my hair out and undergoing electrolysis for a five-o’clock shadow that inevitably appeared at 2:15.
At that point, the wife asked, “Would you be comfortable doing that, appearing as a man at the trial?”
By then, with all the hurdles that I had jumped to come out as the true me, I had vowed to never lie to my clients or to myself. Thus, I answered, “No, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that.”
The woman looked at her husband and then back at me. She then said, “Well, that settles it. You’ll try the case as a woman.”
Two months later, Ellen Krug and her young associate brought home a defense verdict for those clients.
I share these allyship examples because they left indelible marks on my heart; even though the allyship occurred a dozen years ago, I remember both instances like they happened just yesterday. I will never forget how people stood up for me and were willing to risk political or financial consequences to affirm who I am.
That’s the power of allyship: the person being protected or affirmed may very well remember another person’s act of allyship forever.
Several forms of allyship
Allyship can show up in a variety of ways.
1. Speaking up for others. When people think of traditional allyship, it’s usually in the form of speaking up for someone else. To understand rules around this, I use the acronym, “ALLY”—awareness of a marginalized group’s challenges, both historical and present; looking to protect who is present or not; listening to what is said or not; and “yo,” as in “Yo, dude, what you just said [or did] isn’t cool. Stop it!”
One of the biggest challenges relative to speaking up is randomness, like when someone unexpectedly makes a comment that marginalizes another person or group of people. Suddenly, we’re put on the spot, trying to figure out if we should say something, and if so, what those words should be.
If all else fails, I recommend a single failsafe phrase: “Uncomfortable,” as in, “That joke you just made about Sally makes me really uncomfortable.”
Ninety-nine percent of the time, simply using that word—“uncomfortable”—will be enough to stop the marginalizing actor in his or her tracks, buying you time to later come up with a more nuanced response for a conversation with the actor later.
2. Symbols and Signs. Another form of allyship is the display of symbols or signs—think placing a “Black Lives Matter” placard in your window or on your front lawn. Sadly—as proof of how divided we’ve become—in some locales or workplaces, the mere act of displaying such a sign would be thought of as extremely courageous.
For those who consider themselves allies of the LGBTQ community, an important form of allyship is placement of a rainbow, such as a flag or a sticker or decal. If you identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or “queer,” seeing a rainbow signifies something incredibly important; safety, as in “I won’t need to worry about being marginalized in this space.”
3. Policies. Advocating for and getting into place policies that protect marginalized persons or groups also constitutes allyship. For example, doing the work to create a policy to allow lactating mothers a private space and the time to pump would be allyship for a group that’s often overlooked.
You can do this
As the legal profession grapples with issues around diversity and inclusion, it’s incredibly important that we regularly engage in allyship for those who have historically lacked power. Each of us can speak up for or act on behalf of someone else—we’re lawyers after all!
Please have the courage to move from mere ally status to engaging in real allyship for others. Doing so may cause someone to remember your act of allyship—and you—forever!
Ellie Krug, the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change, speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics. Visit elliekrug.com for more info. You can also sign up for her monthly 9,000-plus recipient e-newsletter, the Ripple. She welcomes your comments at [email protected]
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